Counterknowledge, By Damian Thompson
A persuasive account of bogus thinking, but it's a pity God isn't in the detail
Thursday 31 January 2008
Urban myths, conspiracy theories, bogus science: plenty of phrases describe our seemingly inexhaustible capacity to believe "facts" that are nothing of the sort. Damian Thompson has invented a new word for this – "counterknowledge" – and has tried to give the whole flabby concept a bit of shape.
By counterknowledge, Thompson means that which "purports to be knowledge, but is not knowledge". Its claims can be shown to be untrue because the "facts" can be contradicted, or because there is no evidence to support them. He then sets off at a gallop – this is a short and punchy book, written with passion and humour – to thread his theory through examples.
Most are familiar: that the twin towers were brought down by the US government; that the Catholic Church holds a secret key to the "Da Vinci Code"; or that Diana, Princess of Wales was murdered by MI5. Thompson divides these bits of mumbo-jumbo into three categories – the quasi-religious; the historical; and the medical.
And very persuasive he is. There's nothing like linking unconnected notions into a coherent framework, as Dan Brown can testify. But Thompson overeggs his pudding. One inclusion, and one exclusion, brought me up sharp.
He castigates all parents who refused to have their children given the triple MMR vaccine for causing a measles epidemic. Easy to say in 2008; not so clear in 1999, when a research paper by a seemingly reputable scientist had just been published and testimony abounded from parents whose healthy children had never recovered after the jab. And, 30 years earlier, the scientific establishment had been equally bullish over thalidomide. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
And where was organised religion itself? Thompson is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Herald, but belief in God isn't up for discussion. "Religion becomes proper counterknowledge," he states, "only when it seriously seeks to undermine, or is contradicted by, the evidence of our senses." Fair enough, but I was expecting at least a chapter exploring this distinction. Instead there are a few paragraphs, tacked on to the end of the section on the loony science of creationism.
It's a small gripe in the context of a book that leaves you slightly breathless, full of new thoughts and, occasionally, mildly embarrassed about your own credulity. And with a final, worrying thought: might the whole theory of counterknowledge not be an example of counterknowledge itself?
Atlantic, £12.99. Order for £11.69 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897
Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boymusic
Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Katie Hopkins attacked me on Twitter — so I reported her to the police for inciting racial hatred
- 2 Google April Fools': company unveils backwards search engine and huggable digital assistant
- 3 I might be an MP, but that doesn't stop me fighting sexism with my breasts
- 4 April Fools' Day 2015: The best hoax news stories from around the internet
- 5 Gamers confess the worst things they've done in The Sims
Gaza Banksy mural sold to 'conman' for just $175
Tidal launch: The most pretentious lines from Alicia Keys' valedictory speech
Tidal: Jay Z's Spotify rival criticised for making wealthy artists even richer
Top Gear live to go ahead: Jeremy Clarkson to join Richard Hammond and James May... just don't call it Top Gear
James May hints he will not continue on Top Gear without Jeremy Clarkson
Street preacher quoting from the Bible fined for calling homosexuality an 'abomination'
Katie Hopkins attacked me on Twitter — so I reported her to the police for inciting racial hatred
Woman filmed launching racist tirade against men on the Tube for speaking in 'own lingo'
David Cameron calls Labour 'hopeless, sneering socialists' while announcing 7-day NHS plans
Revealed: Putin's army of pro-Kremlin bloggers
Katie Hopkins reported to the police for race hatred by Labour MP Simon Danczuk after tweet about Pakistani men